vicky_christina_barcelona11A break from familiar surroundings can do a body good. So it is with Woody Allen who spent thirty years making films in New York City before decamping to Europe. Just as Martin Scorsese won his first Oscar when he deserted Manhattan for the Boston location of The Departed and Spike Lee made his most interesting film in years with When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, his documentary set in New Orleans, Allen seems to have been reinvigorated by a change in scenery. Set in Spain Vicky Christina Barcelona doesn’t exactly hit Annie Hall heights, but does mark a high point for Allen after a long dry patch.

The movie begins with two girlfriends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on summer vacation in Spain. They’re best of friends but have very different outlooks on life. Vicky is a straight-laced New Yorker, set to marry her rich fiancée and settle in to a comfortable life in a big house in Connecticut. Cristina is a sexually audacious free spirit, still trying to find herself. “I don’t know what I want,” she says, “I only know what I don’t want.” The young Americans meet an intriguing painter (Javier Bardem) who woos them both as he tries to deal with his residual feelings for his passionate but slightly loony ex-wife (Penelope Cruz).

Despite the sun drenched setting—the film was shot on beautiful locations in Spain—Vicky Christina Barcelona still feels like a Woody Allen film. Like many of his past movies it deals with complicated relationships and the nature of love framed by a jaunty jazz score—this time with a Spanish flair—strong situational humor and good performances by the ensemble cast.

Its clear Allen loves Scarlett Johansson. In this, their third film together, his camera lovingly strokes her face, luxuriating in close-ups that adoringly fill the screen. Her character is the catalyst of all the action, the pivot on which the movie spins and like many of his muses from the past—Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton—in Vicky Christina Barcelona he pushes her to reveal previously unseen talent. Her Cristina is a complicated character—confused and quirky, she’s searching for happiness in her surroundings and in herself. It’s Johansson’s best performance since Lost in Translation.

Another of the film’s pleasures is the pairing of Bardem and Cruz as the star crossed, but tempestuous ex-lovers. As a couple who “are meant for one another and not meant for one another” they have great chemistry and sparks fly in their scenes.

The film isn’t perfect. An annoying voice over is overused and a “Speak English” gag gets tired very quickly, but overall there is more good than bad.

For me Woody Allen’s most successful movies have frequently had women’s names in their titles and while Vicky Christina Barcelona isn’t a classic like Hannah and Her Sisters and Annie Hall it is a welcome return to form after last year’s catastrophic Cassandra’s Dream.